The Politics of “Occasion” in King Lear

The Politics of “Occasion”


King Lear


David Hurley

First published in Studies in English Language and Literature, Department of English Studies, Hiroshima Jogakuin University, March 2006

Lear fell because he was too choleric [1] and Gloucester lost his eyes because he was too credulous; [2] but neither choler nor credulity worked alone.  Had machination [3] ceased to breed occasions [4] Lear would not have cast himself out of Gloucester’s castle nor would Gloucester’s eyes have been cast out of their cases.  That Lear was choleric and Gloucester credulous provided occasions for them to be practised [5] upon and left them vulnerable to the machinations of their ill-disposed children.  Occasions were given with hideous rashness and taken with marble-hearted alacrity; partiality, blindness and folly presided over the giving, resentment, ambition and contempt over the taking.

But it is not only the treacherous who resort to practices.  When Edmund falls Goneril protests:

                                       This is practice, Gloucester.

By th’ law of war thou wast not bound to answer

An unknown opposite. Thou art not vanquish’d,

But cozen’d and beguil’d. 

V. 3. 152-155

Lear himself has his “darker purpose” (I. 1. 36) and those characters who remain loyal to Lear and to Gloucester also resort to dissimulation or “altruistic deceit.” [6]  Both Kent and Edgar practise dissimulation and disguise and both seem to become absorbed by their facility to carry it off beyond the point of necessity.  Kent in particular, though constant in his service to Lear and in his love for him, tends to lack the supreme stoical virtue of constancy of spirit.

 Albany appears to be a shifting compass until he cooperates with Edgar in the final act of the play to confront and confound Edmund, Goneril and Regan, fulfilling Cordelia’s “veritas filia temporis” prophecy:

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,

I. 1. 280

When Lear enters with his daughter dead in his arms we are presented with a tableau of Time bearing Truth.  All the hidden practices of both the loyalist and the rebellious parties, their inadequacy of vision or of resolve, their blindness to realities both external and internal, are exposed and are shown to have led to “crowning triumph and utter defeat at the same time.” [7]  It draws from the two most loyal men of the play, Kent and Edgar, the poignant exchange:

Kent:     Is this the promis’d end?

Edgar: Or image of that horror?

V. 3. 264-5

All their counter-practices have been compromised by the unforeseen outcomes of their actions.  Edgar had no intention of tipping Lear into madness when he adopted the persona of Poor Tom. Nor did he know that his “long-drawn out ritual of retribution,” the trial by combat with all its rhetorical ornamentation, would “cost Cordelia her life.” [8]

The shifting to and fro between psychological realism and symbolical or rhetorical stylisation that occurs in the preliminaries to the trial by combat represents the culmination of a series of such discursive shifts which occur throughout the play, whether through the utterances of the Fool who uses humour to excavate the “unresolved incompatibilities” [9] of the drama, or through the deployment of tableaux to set the action in symbolical context, or through the expedient of disguise or change of persona, or through the deployment of a more expansive rhetorical patterning.

But rhetoric, while it is intrinsically playful (and therefore intrinsically problematic to the serious minded), [10] is nevertheless primarily a means of persuasion and therefore also intensely political; it is a means of control, open handed, caressing and soft in comparison to the clenched fist of logic or the mailed fist of force.  Yet rhetorical practice, like the practice of disguise, may seduce and distract the one who resorts to it by the pleasure it provides.  Despite those risks rhetorical facility is one of the chief means by which occasions may be bred and put to use; it is a vital component of flattery, practice and machination; it may be deployed either in defence of a character or towards the ends that he pursues.

Lear: Political Preoccupations

Lear himself, however, can pursue no concrete ends for “the action turns against him almost at once” [11] and, like Richard II, he ceases to dominate the course of events yet he continues to dominate the play through a process of self-dramatization.  His status is redefined and with it his very humanity through several changes of costume (which never entirely efface his kingly identity) and through an interrogative rhetoric that “lifts him clear of the particular circumstances of plot and personality and makes him that Everyman that Macbeth with his Witches, Othello with his Iago, even Hamlet with his Ghost, cannot be.” [12]

Yet while Lear’s rhetorical practice “lifts him clear” it does not sever him from the circumstances of the plot any more than the raising of ethical concerns in the play severs them from their political context.  Political and ethical concerns are as plaited and interdependent in Shakespeare’s tragedy as they are in Aristotle’s philosophy or the letters of Cicero.  Man is a political animal and just as in Aristotle the government of the home as well as of the state is subordinate to the art of politics, so politics in Shakespeare is as much concerned with the art of governing the family as with the art of governing the state, particularly so since so many of the characters are of royal or noble blood.  In Aristotelian terms good government of the family and of the state is necessary if the good – or ethical – life is to be to be realized.  Ethical concerns cannot be separated from political concerns and neither can be detached from a consideration of justice which “consists in acting fairly or impartially in a matter of division of material goods or other advantages.” [13]

That ethical concerns of “virtue” are connected in Lear’s mind to the political art of “practice” is suggested by his allusion to the “similar man of virtue,”

That under covert and convenient seeming

Has practis’d on man’s life!

III. 2. 56-57

His concern for the plight of the Fool, however, represents a shift of focus to the concrete and particular that indicates the emergence of a gentle and humane concern for the welfare of the individual at a local level: [14]

Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart

That’s sorry yet for thee.

III. 2. 72-73

In the torment of his mind Lear restlessly ranges through a series of states from outbursts of rage to incredulity, from a desire to fathom his daughters’ treachery to a thirst for retribution that oscillates between the two poles of the judicial procedure of “arraignment” and the “wild justice” of revenge. [15]  Briefly, here and there, an emergent stoical discourse of patience and endurance is also evident:

                       – filial ingratitude!

Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand

For lifting food to’t? But I will punish home.

No, I will weep no more. In such a night

To shut me out? Pour on, I will endure.

In such a night as this? O Regan, Goneril!

Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all –

O, that way madness lies, let me shun that!

No more of that.

III. 4. 14-22

When Lear asks Poor Tom for an account of his history Edgar extemporizes a description of a man debased by a catalogue of lusts in a court where political practice has been severed from ethical concerns, a court in which the worship of the goddess Nature has displaced respect for Natural Law.  The catalogue of lusts is immediately followed by a catalogue of bestiality:

hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in                                 madness, lion in prey.

III. 4. 93-4)

It is an expansion of the bestiary of human depravity which was begun by Cicero’s man/beast dichotomy in De Officiis and reinterpreted by Machiavelli in the eighteenth chapter of The Prince by reference to Chiron, the centaur who taught Achilles and whose parabolic interpretation, at least according to Machiavelli, serves to teach princes how to use both the attributes of the fox and the lion; a fox to avoid traps (such as the trap that Edgar fell into) and a lion to frighten wolves (such as Edmund).  It is in such a context that Lear contemplates the nature of naked man.  When Lear asks “Is man no more than this?” we acknowledge with Ornstein that the play “is deeply concerned with the nature of man and his universe,” [16] yet we cannot but recall how this particular man came to seem to be no more than this “poor, bare, forked animal” which is not “the thing itself” but the ousted son of an earl who is feigning madness out of political necessity.

The preoccupation with political concerns continues in the midst of madness when Lear next appears in the fourth scene of Act Four. There it commences with a double entendre on the word “coining” (IV. 6. 83) and moves through the fantasies of the “press money” (IV. 6. 87) and the training of the bowman who “handles his bow like a crow-keeper” (IV. 6. 88), the mendacious flattery of his daughters, the thought that letting “copulation thrive” would be one method of building up an army (IV. 6. 117), until it culminates in the “coining” of a plot [17] to kill his sons-in-law:

It were a delicate stratagem, to shoe

A troop of horse with felt. I’ll put’t in proof,

And when I have stol’n upon these son-in-laws,

Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

IV. 6. 184-187

It was to prevent such “future strife” (I. 1. 44-45) that Lear had with immense personal irony spoken of his “constant will” (I. 1. 43) to divide his kingdom and his authority amongst his daughters and to divest himself of the responsibilities of kingship whilst retaining the “name” and “addition” of a king (I. 1. 137).  That Lear’s project was flawed from the start does not mean that it lacked political calculation, merely that the calculation was fundamentally flawed. The calculation was that “nature” and “merit” could be bound together through a public ceremony to secure the peace of the realm. Lear had supposed that by marrying Cordelia to one of the great continental powers and granting her “a third more opulent” of his own kingdom she would become the “kind nursery” where he could “set” his rest.  His other two daughters being equally provided for, Lear believed, we may presume, that all would be grateful to him for having given all and all would be secure.

Lear’s project is governed not by sound reason but by the false reasoning of “opinion” which Justus Lipsius, a possible source for the resistant stoicism of the play, describes as being,

naught else but a vain image and shadow of reason, whose seat is the senses, whose birth is the earth. Therefore being vile and base it tends downward and savors nothing of high and heavenly matters. It is vain, uncertain, deceitful, evil in counsel, evil in judgment. It deprives the mind of constancy and verity.

Lipsius, Book of Constancy I. 5

Evil in judgement indeed is Lear when he turns in anger upon Cordelia’s “Nothing” (I. 1. 87).  Kent does not tell the king that he is evil but that by his “hideous rashness” he does evil (I. 1. 171).  Had Lear the calm composure, the reason and the wit of France he might have turned Cordelia’s “nothing” back into “all” and all had been well.  But Lear’s choler gives the lie to his constancy of will just as Cordelia’s constancy will give the lie to Goneril and Regan’s cordiality.

Goneril and Regan: Occasion for Resentment

Yet from what has been said it can readily be imagined that Goneril and Regan might consider themselves as having occasion for resentment for they are ambitious for power and their father has done them the disservice of surviving into “unnecessary” old age (II. 4. 153).  That they surely feel themselves to have chafed too long under

an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny,

I. 2. 49-50

is made evident by Regan’s reply to Lear:

Lear: I gave you all –

Regan:  And in good time you gave it.

II. 4. 250

The position of Goneril and Regan in relation to their father is exactly that which Edmund writes into his feigned letter from Edgar:

“This policy and reverence of age makes the world bitter to the best of our times; keeps our fortunes from us till our oldness cannot relish them. I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways, not as it hath power, but as it is suffer’d.” 

I. 2. 46-51

If the king’s undisguised favouritism has worked over a long period to provoke the jealousy of Goneril and Regan, their close and intimate observation of his “inconstant starts” (I. 1. 304) has aroused in them the utmost contempt which is expressed not so much in the truth of their observations as in the tone:

Goneril:  You see how full of changes his age is…

He always loved our sister most, and with what poor judgement he hath now cast her off appears too grossly.

Regan:  ’Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.

Goneril: The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look from his age to receive not alone the imperfections of long-ingraff’d condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

I. 1. 288-99

Interestingly, Bacon draws a parallel between a choleric temperament such as Lear’s and the malignant ambition of Goneril and Regan:

Ambition is like choler, which is an humour that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped, and cannot have his way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous.

Bacon, Essays 36: “Of Ambition”

Here then may be a clue to the conundrum set by Lear:

Is there any cause in nature that make these hard hearts?

III, vi, 77-8

Edmund: A Fashioner of Occasions

Against Lear’s obvious but unreliable partiality may be contrasted the seemingly impressive impartiality of Gloucester who, having introduced Edmund to Kent tells the earl:

I have a son , sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account.

I. 1. 19-21

As kindly disposed as Gloucester may be to Edmund, he spares him no consideration when he makes light of the circumstances of his conception.  Although Gloucester may hold Edgar and Edmund in equal regard Edmund does not receive equal treatment or consideration. Edmund has been and is to be kept at a distance from the court:

    He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again.      

I. 1. 32-3

Whereas Goneril and Regan were “in good time” presented with a gift when their father conferred upon them their inheritance, Edmund can look forward to no such prospects; his father is not so old as Lear or so ready to relinquish “cares and business” (I. 1. 39).  Indeed, it is apparent that Gloucester rather fancies himself as a man of affairs, a worldly wise man.  Moreover, Edmund labours under the double disadvantage of being both a younger son and an illegitimate one.  Edmund is a young man sharply aware that an accident of birth excludes him from titles and property while the gentlemen who enjoy them are no more intelligent and no better dimensioned but more credulous and “foolish” (I. 2. 179) than a sharp young man as is Edmund.

If he is to serve his ambition and fashion his fortune, his circumstances are such that he, like Goneril and Regan, “must do something, and i’ th’ heat” (I. 1. 308) before his father sends him away.  He must seize power, which is why Edmund is from the beginning a breeder of occasions, whereas Goneril only breeds them after she has inherited a kingdom.

At the height of his fortune Edmund seeks to rise to the throne by having Cordelia and Lear executed.  To the captain whom he commissions with the task he says:

One step I have advanc’d thee; if thou dost

As this instructs thee, thou dost make thy way

To noble fortunes.  Know thou this, that men

Are as the time is; to be tender-minded

Does not become a sword.

V. 3. 28-32

Edmund may be praised for practising what he preaches; with his own eye firmly on the attainment of “noble fortunes” he made himself to be “as the time is” with hard-headed calculation severed from ethical considerations.  In short, Shakespeare represents Edmund’s policy as being thoroughly Machiavellian. Edmund understands two things which come straight out of the eighteenth chapter of The Prince; firstly, that men judge more by what can be seen than by what can be felt,

li uomini in universali iudicano più alli occhi chealle mani; perché  tocca a vedere a ognuno, a sentire a pochi.

Machiavelli, Il Principe, XVIII

And, secondly, that howsoever a prince wins a state, the end justifies the means (“si guarda al fine”) and the means will always be judged to be honourable,

è mezzi saranno sempre iudicati onorevoli, e da ciascuno laudati.


Machiavelli asserts that men must adapt themselves to the times and so does Edmund. He has no compunction in pursuing his ends in accordance with the practices of the times.  Francis Bacon too was such a man of his time as to believe that men should adapt themselves to their time and become adept in seizing opportunities for advancement:

We must strive with all possible endeavour to render the mind obedient to occasions and opportunities and to be noways obstinate and refractory towards them. For nothing hinders men’s actions and fortunes so much as this, to remain the same, when the same is unbecoming… and nothing is more politic than to make the wheels of the mind concentric and voluble with the wheels of fortune.

Bacon, Advancement of Learning

The influence of the twenty-fifth book of The Prince on Bacon is evident.  In his discussion on the role of Fortune in human affairs Machiavelli states that if one could change one’s nature as time and circumstances change then one’s fortune would never change:

…se si mutassi di natura con li tempi e con le cose, non si muterebbe fortuna.

Machiavelli, Il Principe, XXV

But note that while advising us to adapt ourselves to time and circumstance, Bacon recommends that one “render the mind obedient to occasions” and not that one “breed… occasions” as Edmund’s cohort in wicked practice, Goneril, would do.

For Bacon, opportunity is to be discovered by observation:

If a man look sharply and attentively, he shall see Fortune, for though she be blind, yet she is not invisible.

Bacon, Essays, 40 “Of Fortune

Bacon is always careful to follow Machiavelli only so far.  He seizes opportunity where and when he sees it, but he does not justify the means by the end and he does not think it permissible that one breed occasions.  It is just such a nicety that distinguishes Edgar from Edmund and Albany from Goneril.  Edmund is in part like the great men of old, Moses, Cyrus, Romulus and Theseus, [18] who owe fortune nothing but the occasion which gave them matter to fashion as they saw fit:

non si vede che quelli avessino altro dalla fortuna che la occasione,  la quale dette loro materia a potete introdurvi drento quella forma parse loro. 

Machiavelli, Il Principe, VI

Edgar and Albany: Responding to Occasion

During the brief period of proximity to his father Edmund took advantage of his credulity to “breed occasion” by the “invention” (I. 2. 20) of a letter and by passing it off as having been written by his brother, Edgar.  Edgar also achieves his ends by the occasion provided by a letter. He did not “invent” the letter but discovered it. He did not so much “breed occasion” as respond to it, making the wheels of his mind “concentric and voluble with the wheels of fortune.”  Having defended his father from Oswald’s opportunistic attack, Edgar discovers that Oswald was conveying letters from Goneril to Edmund.  Edgar rehearses Oswald’s villainous character, takes no pleasure in being his “death’s-man” (IV. 6. 258) and expresses a sensitivity and respect for manners and the law which both fortune and circumstance allow and require him at this juncture to set aside:

To know our enemies’ minds, we’ld rip their hearts,

Their papers, is more lawful.

IV. 6. 260-261

Presented with an opportunity to act, Edgar will not hesitate, “in the mature time” (IV. 6. 282) to reveal the plot to Albany.

Albany is as cunning as Cornwall in Kent’s estimation (III. 1. 21), whereas Goneril rates him as “mild” (IV. 2. 1), “cowish” (IV. 2. 12) and as a “moral fool” (IV. 2. 59).  Edmund frets about his being,

 full of alteration

And self-reproving –

V. 1. 3-4

and seeks to discover what his “constant pleasure” (V. 1. 4) is. It may be either mere fortuity or indeed it may be prudence that causes Albany to avoid committing himself until the last minute, and then to confront Goneril and Edmund only after the French army has been defeated, when his own position is more secure.  Nevertheless, he avoids the mistake of Machiavelli’s Venetians who invited the French into Italy only to discover that their own position was thereby imperilled. [19]  Were the French to defeat the English powers Albany, assuming he survived the war, would find himself vulnerable to accusations of treachery.  Thus Albany does exactly what Machiavelli advises; he combines with the smaller powers and he does not avoid war.  In his report to Edmund before the battle he clearly distinguishes the party that he is waging war against:

Where I could not be honest,

I never yet was valiant. For this business,

It touches us as France invades our land,

Not bolds the king, with others whom, I fear,

Most just and heavy causes make oppose.

V. 1. 23-27

Here is a statement of policy that is frank and discriminating.  Albany is no more a breeder of occasions than Edgar.  But when occasion comes his way, and proof of treachery, then he not hesitate to strike “in the mature time” without fear for his own life or safety but depending, again as Machiavelli advises, upon his own powers with the self-assurance of one used to authority and prudent handling of the larger matters of the distribution of power.  Albany throws down his glove to challenge Edmund to a duel should no other challenger appear on the third sound of the trumpet and tells Edmund:

Trust to thy single virtue, for thy soldiers,

All levied in my name, have in my name

Took their discharge.

V. 3. 103-105

Edmund the Machiavellian has been outmanoeuvred by Albany, a student of Machiavelli after the manner of the Viscount St Albans. [20]

Goneril: A Breeder of Occasions

Albany’s wife, Goneril, resorts to the breeding of occasions as a necessary preliminary step on the way to the gaining of political advantage on two fronts, firstly in her attack upon Lear and secondly in defending the grounds of her attack against Albany’s objections.

Goneril needs a pretext so that she might “do something, and in the heat.”  The heat she seeks to generate is driven by Machiavellian impetuousness and a self-generated indignation which will better enable her to carry the argument she is minded to have with Lear and also to justify it to Albany.  For Goneril, then, unlike Bacon, occasions must be obedient to the mind, not the mind to occasions:

And let his knights have colder looks among you;

What grows of it, no matter. Advise your fellows so.

I would breed from hence occasions, and I shall,

That I may speak.

I. 3. 22-25

To create her occasion she requires the services of her “trusty servant” Oswald who takes over in Shakespeare’s tragedy the function of the parasite or private counsellor in comedy, as Michel Aaij pointed out in his paper “Machiavellian Rhetoric in the Prince and the Mandragola.”  In Machiavelli’s comedy it is Ligurio who creates an occasion for his client Callimaco to gain access to Nicia’s house and eventually to Lucrezia’s bed.  The importance of having a trusted and efficient secretary is dealt with in the twenty second chapter of The Prince.  The first impression one gets of a prince, Machiavelli explains, is by seeing whom he has around him, “li uomini che lui ha d’intorno” (XXII).  As a secretary is faithful and competent so a prince will seem wise.  Since a new prince is closely observed, having the right sort of secretary is one of the things that will give him authority and make a new prince seem ancient (XXIV).

 Of all the treacherous characters in King Lear Goneril stands out as the one who speaks with and commands most authority and it is largely through the agency of Oswald that this effect is achieved.  It is Oswald whom she commands with such high authority and upon whom she cleverly relies to work her own schemes according in part to her orders and in part according to his own initiative and the authority he gains by working for her:

Put on what weary negligence you please,

You and your fellows.

I. 3. 12-13


And let his knights have colder looks among you;

What grows of it, no matter. Advise your fellows so.

I. 3. 22-23


Take you some company, and away to horse.

Inform her full of my particular fear,

And thereto add such reasons of your own

As may compact it more. Get you gone,

And hasten your return.

I. 4. 336-340

The urgent celerity with which Goneril breeds her occasions has in it a sense of the exhilarating enlargement of new found power.  Her diction is swift, almost peremptory, and direct.  She has no need to flatter Oswald; he is flattered enough to receive her commands. Moreover, her brief manner and her reliance upon Oswald to act in her behalf on his own initiative testifies to the degree of trust and of mutual respect that has been established between them and which stands the test of testing times.  Oswald may indeed be a “serviceable villain” (IV. 6. 252) but he knows which party he serves and is astute enough to understand that loyalty to that party will offer him opportunities to raise his fortunes.

The occasion that Goneril has bred with Oswald’s connivance has served her purpose to perfection for it has enraged Lear as she, who knows his disposition so well, must have anticipated.  It is to her purpose also that Albany should happen to enter in the midst of Lear’s rage, which Goneril does not hesitate to impute to “dotage” (I. 4. 289).  Albany however, ever mindful that Lear retains the name and addition of a king, “cannot be so partial” (I. 4. 354) towards Goneril as to immediately take her side in the argument.  Goneril therefore advances her case a stage further by resorting to a swift anthypophora to forestall further objections:

’Tis politic and safe to let him keep

At point a hundred knights; yes, that on every dream,

Each buzz, each fancy, each complaint, dislike,

He may enguard his dotage with their pow’rs,

And hold our lives in mercy.

I. 4. 323-327

A prince must depend upon his own powers and avoid the danger of having armed servants, particularly those loyal to another master, in his midst.  A prince who goes unarmed and relies upon love rather than upon fear places himself in danger.  These Machiavellian commonplaces may be applied equally to Lear and Goneril’s circumstances although it is only the latter who views the case through Machiavellian spectacles. She answers Albany’s mild reproach that she “may fear too far” (I. 4. 325) with a swift rejoinder and a double justification:

Safer than trust too far.

Let me still take away the harms I fear,

Not fear still to be taken. I know his heart.

I. 4. 328-330

The exchange between Albany and Goneril encapsulates the larger difference between the careful approach of the traditional ruler and the more precipitous haste of the Machiavellian type who would move things along briskly as soon as an occasion can be bred or fashioned so as to wrest control of his fate from Fortune.

Goneral and Regan: The Politic Use of Flattery

Thus, no sooner has Goneril received the keys to her kingdom than her rhetorical method also changes as she seeks to free herself from her obligations towards Lear and his retinue.  This policy is continued, of course, by Regan, who checks Lear’s outrage at the stocking of his man (Kent) with advice that is coldly to the point:

I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.

II. 4. 201

Before Lear divided his kingdom between his elder daughters the chief weapons of practice in their armoury were flattery and ingratiation as Lear comes to see only after he has been roughly handled by them:

They flatter’d me like a dog, and told me I had white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there. To say “ay” and “no” to every thing that I said!

IV. 6. 96-99

At the beginning of the play the kingdom has already been divided and it may be presumed that the portions have already been allocated but who will get what is not known, hence Gloucester and Kent’s exchange about the direction of the king’s affections at the opening of the play in which what is “thought,” what “seems” or “appears” does not accord with what “is” (I. 1. 1-6).  When Lear invites his daughters to bid with “words of love” (I. 1. 190) for “our largest bounty” (I. 1. 52) Goneril’s wit is sharp enough to suggest to her that it would be politic to bid with a profession of love “beyond all assignable quantity,” but carefully expressed within the bounds of decorum, in a speech of modest proportion.  That she immediately receives her inheritance suggests that Lear has indeed previously allocated the divisions to his daughters and supposes that their words of love will match their actual inclinations.

Regan, having seen Goneril’s flattery gain her a kingdom, adopts a similar strategy of bidding for an unspecified reward with a boundless expression of love.  But, if possible, Goneril’s flattery must be topped and Regan is quick to spot an omission on Goneril’s part; Goneril, in her amplifications of her feigned love for her father, neglected to tell him that she was “alone felicitate” in his love (I. 1. 70-76). 

It would be incorrect to say that Goneril and Regan won their kingdoms by flattering their father’s vanity; rather their adroit recourse to flattery confirms them in the inheritance of kingdoms which had already been apportioned to them. Lear does not change his course because of flattery; rather, his daughters’ flattery serves to justify Lear in the course that he has taken.  It is as if the whole intent of Goneril and Regan’s rhetorical strategy has been to neutralize the effects of Lear’s favouritism towards Cordelia.  The contrast between their fulsome and florid professions of feigned love, so pleasing to Lear’s vanity, and the shocking starkness of Cordelia’s candid “Nothing” is heightened by juxtaposition and the jarring and unpleasant abruptness of it provokes Lear’s terrifying epanalepsis:

Better thou

Hadst not been born than not t’have pleas’d me better.

I. 1. 233-4

It is against an outburst of pique such as this that Lear’s complaint that his daughters “flattered me like a dog” must be measured; with the unregenerate Lear, whose corruption approaches that of the barbarous Scythian (I. 1. 117), one had better not say what is better.

Lipsian Constancy versus Machiavellian Occasion

Lear is one of those men of whom Machiavelli speaks,

li uomoni si compiacciono tanto nelle cose loro proprie, et in modo vi si ingannono,

Machiavelli, Il Principe, XXIII

a man who takes pleasure in his own things and who deceives himself thereby.  When such a man is such a king as Lear the danger is great both to himself and to those who would speak the truth to him in his own interests; but that there are those in Lear’s retinue who are both loyal and truthful is one of the points of difference between Shakespeare’s multi-faceted view of man and Machiavelli’s mordant singleness of perspective.  Machiavelli writes that men will always prove false unless compelled by necessity to be good,

li uomini sempre ti riusciranno tristi, se da una necessità non sono fatti buoni.


In Machiavelli’s dramatic world there could be no place for a Cordelia or a Kent who place more value upon loyalty and the plain-spoken truth than they do upon the breeding of occasions for self promotion.  Perhaps it is because Machiavelli and Shakespeare work in opposite directions. Whereas Machiavelli is often keen to reduce complex cases to a series of dichotomies to which the rule of “either – or” may be applied, [21] Shakespeare tends to move from a series of dichotomies to ever more complex patterns of human variation and interaction through what Brian Vickers refers to as the “increasingly subtle medium” of his language, “reflecting the differences and interactions between characters, situations and moods.”[22] In King Lear the reflection which the language of the play casts through all the differing interactions between the characters, their situations and moods is one that is in its concern with the nature of man both deeply political and deeply ethical.  The political concerns of the play do not stop when Lear speaks; rather, he carries those concerns with him as he undertakes a radical re-evaluation of what it is to be a man in such a world as the one in which he finds himself to be a stranger.

The failures of the loyal party in the face of Machiavellian subterfuge are to a large degree losses of composure in troubled times.  It is against just such losses of composure that Justus Lipsius addressed his De Constantia, written as a response to the troubles in the Netherlands. Lipsius’s reinterpretation of stoicism in a Christian context finds an echo in those passages in King Lear in which patience and endurance are recommended or practiced by the good, or would-be good, characters. Yet patience and endurance are not forms of inaction, but rather forms of constancy in which one acts and moves with equanimity and acceptance:

Ripeness is all.

V. 2. 11

The irony here is that it is Edgar who recommends to his father something akin to Lipsian constancy and acceptance of fate while he himself remains deeply involved in a Machiavellian attempt to manipulate fortune by practice and celerity as his next words to his father imply with their peremptory tone:

Come on.

V. 2. 11

He urges haste upon his father, but his vanity is such that having set up an occasion for retribution and hastened unto it, he then draws out the preliminaries of the duel with Edmund and thereby unwittingly allows time for Cordelia to be killed. Counter practice proves to be useless; the ends it serves are not those of the practitioner but of fate itself. With regard to the protecting of oneself from the breeders of occasion therefore, I find myself in agreement with Masefield who writes:

One of the chief lessons of the plays is that man is only safe when his mind is perfectly just and calm.

Masefield, William Shakespeare, p. 188.


[1] King Lear, I. 1. 304, Goneril accurately observes that Lear’s “long engraffed” imperfections are made worse by his “choleric years” – in other words, old age is accompanied by choler, which aggravates existing deficiencies of character.

[2] King Lear, I. 2. 195, Edmund: “A credulous father!”

[3] King Lear, I. 2. 113, Gloucester: “We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.” Also, V. 1. 47, Edgar: “If you miscarry, Your business of the world hath so an end, And machination ceases.”.

[4] King Lear, I. 3. 25 (1608 Quarto), “I would breed from hence occasions, and I shall, That I may speak.” Also II. 1. 121, Regan: “Occasions, noble Gloucester, of some poise, Wherein we must have use of your advice.”

[5] The noun “practice” occurs several times and the verb form “practise” occurs once in King Lear. I. 2. 180, Edmund: “My practices ride easy!” II. 1. 107, Gloucester: “He did bewray his practice.” II. 4. 116, Lear: “This act persuades me That this remotion of the duke and her Is practice only.” III. 2. 57, Lear: “caitiff, to pieces shake, That under covert and convenient seeming Hast practised on man’s life.” V. 3. 153, Goneril: “This is practice Gloucester.” 

[6] Philip Edwards, “Shakespeare and the Healing Art of Deceit,” Shakespeare Survey 31, p.115.

[7] Iwasaki Soji, The Sword and the Word, p. 229.

[8] Philip Edwards, Op. cit., p. 122.

[9] G. Wilson Knight, Wheel of Fire, p. 165.

[10] For a discussion of rhetoric in these terms see Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in

    the Renaissance.

[11] W. B. C. Watkins, Shakespeare and Spenser, p. 77.

[12] Winifred M. T. Nowottny, “Lear’s Questions,” Shakespeare Survey 10, p. 90.

[13] W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. 6.  p. 371.

[14] Tom McAlindon, “Tragedy, King Lear, and the Politics of the Heart,” Shakespeare Survey 44, pp. 85-


[15] Francis Bacon, Essays, 4, “Of Revenge”.

[16] Robert Ornstein, The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, p. 260.

[17] The phrase “coining plots” occurs in Cymbeline, II. 1. 64.

[18] These are, of course, Machiavelli’s examples cited in The Prince, 6.

[19] The Prince, 3.

[20] I.e. Francis Bacon.

[21] See Federico Chabod, Machiavelli and the Renaissance, pp. 127-8 for a discussion on Machiavelli’s

      either/or dichotomies.

[22] Brian Vickers, The Artistry of Shakespeare’s Prose. p. 3